By Michael Hotard
The beginning of September typically marks a lot of things for Americans: the end of summer, back-to-school, the beginning of football season, and Labor Day Weekend. Like most other things so far in 2020, this September feels a bit different.
For one, state-wide shutdowns and increased unemployment has led to consumer confidence going down for the second straight month. According to the Consumer Confidence Index published at the end of August, the overall index was down 6.9 points, suggesting consumer spending could cool.
With consumers more concerned than ever about spending their hard-earned money, the need to be informed and educated on where your money is going has never been higher.
Beyond assessing if the product fits your needs and the price fits your budget, have you ever considered the impacts your purchases have on people, the planet, and policies?
Many of us maybe do not know or care to know what happens to our money after it is spent. Ultimately, every dollar spent supports a company, their practices (good and bad) and their policy and political impacts (whether you like it or not).
People and Planet –
Plenty of companies are doing great things and making positive impacts (and the movement for stakeholder capitalism is only increasing). At the same time, many companies still have outdated infrastructures, large carbon footprints, or harmful workplace policies. Your purchasing behavior could unknowingly be fueling the continuation of these practices.
Below, we’ve explored a handful of examples of companies impacting people and the planet through their actions.
People – Amazon Vs. Hilton
While these two companies operate in vastly different industries, Amazon and Hilton share one thing in common: the makeup of their workforce. Both employ high numbers of people globally, ranging from lower-paid housekeepers and warehouse workers to higher-paid corporate management. The treatment of their workers could not be more different.
Amazon has been a repeat offender on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s “dirty dozen” list, landing themselves as the most dangerous company in 2018 and 2019. This is due mainly to multiple worker deaths that have occurred in their warehouses since 2013. Their poor infrastructure for worker health and safety has become more apparent during a global pandemic, leading to lawmakers calling for immediate change. As far as day-to-day conditions are concerned, Amazon is notorious for injury risk due to long shifts and few breaks.
Hilton, as a stark contrast, has amassed recognition and accolades for it’s positive workplace culture in recent years. According to Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For, Hilton became the first non-tech company to top the list for two consecutive years. Additionally, Hilton was ranked the #2 World’s Best Workplace, #1 Best Workplace for Parents and #1 Best Workplace for Women. Hilton massively expanded employee benefits such as parental leave, employee stock purchase programs, and professional development opportunities. Although many employees were furloughed in 2020, Hilton’s CEO is foregoing his salary and set up programs for furloughed workers to find temporary employment with other companies such as Amazon (ironic).
Planet – Patagonia Vs. Fast Fashion Brands
Empirical evidence indicates that climate change is correlated to human activity, but it’s the fashion industry in particular that proves to be a potentially non-obvious yet major contributor. According to the UN Environment Program, “The clothing industry is responsible for about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined.”
There have been two approaches in response to this: Prioritize planet over profits or profits over planet. Patagonia is probably the largest advocate for planet over profits. They have committed to a carbon neutral goal by 2025, they openly encourage consumers to reuse and buy less of their products, they are transparent about their supply chain, and they donate a portion of sales to grassroots environmental groups. On the other hand, Fast fashion brands, like Missguided, SHEIN, and Nasty Gal, among others are operating in almost a completely opposite fashion (pun intended). Fast fashion is defined as low cost goods made in fast, overproduction cycles. These brands encourage customers to buy often with changing trends. Their products are not built to last which leads to excessive waste, and they are often produced with harmful and toxic materials to the environment.
Politics and Policy –
Today, with access to information at our fingertips, companies can’t avoid being in the political spotlight. And some are finding it difficult to remain neutral or silent on many social-political issues, leading to a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Companies are having to weigh where they stand on certain issues like never before, often strategically assessing the long-term effects to their business. Take the NFL for example and their changing response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The recent surge of speaking out on issues or pulling advertising dollars from controversial partners isn’t the first time companies are “getting political”. In fact, many large companies and industries have relied on the use of Political Action Committees (or PACs) for decades. Contributing millions to candidates or lobbying efforts that align with their financial interests.
Is this level of corporate involvement a good or bad thing? There are plenty of examples to argue either side. The question we are asking our readers is, are you aware of this activity and does it align with your values?
Planned Parenthood –
“Pro-choice” and “Pro-life” groups in America have been at odds for decades on the reproductive rights of women vs. the rights of embryos to gestate to term. Planned Parenthood, the U.S.’s largest single provider of reproductive health services (which includes abortion), is an easy battleground target for the support or opposition of its mission and practices. As of 2018, companies like AT&T and Netflix filed with the FEC as contributors to Planned Parenthood. Countless other companies have decided to openly support Planned Parenthood due to the majority of their customers and employers being female.
The NRA –
According to the Small Arms Survey, U.S. civilians make up almost half of the civilian firearms owners worldwide. There’s no group more central to the debate on gun ownership laws and regulation than the National Rifle Association. The most recent uptick in activity from companies associated with the NRA came amidst calls to boycott the NRA following the Parkland High School mass shooting in 2018. This social media campaign led to dozens of companies to cut ties and affiliated business relations with the NRA. Some companies, like Bass Pro Shops and their subsidiary Cabela’s, with clear business interests associated to gun sales, chose to retain their long-time lobbying partnerships with the NRA.
What can you do?
It’s likely that your purchases as a consumer could be funding practices, policies, organizations or politicians (for better or for worse). What can you do to make sure your purchasing is in line with your values?
- Know your values and your priorities. We’ve only scratched the surface in providing a glimpse on how companies impact people, the planet, and public policies. Not to mention, it would be impossible to definitively label most companies in a binary manner of “good” and “bad.” There are too many layers to how companies operate. One company could be positively contributing in one area and negatively in another. The best thing you can do as a consumer is to identify and prioritize what matters most to you and act accordingly.
- When it comes to business practices, look for industry acknowledged certifications. Fair Trade, B Corp, Climate Neutral Certified, are just some examples of certifications that display a company’s policies and practices that are considered “above and beyond” what’s standard.
- Follow the money. When it comes to politics and lobbying, you’re in luck. Contribution data from corporate or business PACs is federally regulated by the FEC to be made publicly available. Non-profits like Open Secrets and Follow the Money have organized this data to be more accessible. Additionally, following a company’s PR activity following high profile issues that come to light is another way to assess if their values align with yours.
It may feel like making individual consumer changes can be insignificant when the causes to our world’s problems are almost always systemic. However, if you add up every time you swipe your card at a nearby restaurant or every time you run to a local super market to grab eggs, and you compound these actions across the millions of other consumers who expect more from the impact of their dollar — That one individual action becomes part of a collective movement. Consumer spending fuels 70% of the American economy. As the needle of consumer expectations and access to information continues to move in modern society, our dollars should as well.
Michael is a guest editorial contributor for Cluey as well as a full-time digital marketing strategist, blogger behind hotardhuddle.com, and a contributing writer to the Bayou Report. He graduated from Nicholls State University with a degree in mass communication and broadcast journalism. Michael has a passion for educating consumers and fighting misinformation particularly in today’s political and social climate.
Maryclaire is the CEO and Founder of Cluey Consumer. She started Cluey out of her personal frustration with the inconvenience and difficulty of aligning consumer behavior with personal political, social, and environmental values.